As an American business woman with a disability living in a Mexico, I am strange fruit. As I go about my day, writing, translating and creating, not only am I challenged but I am in love with what I do. However this does not mean that this joy is seen as normal or even conceivable.
People from both sides of the border have seen my gait and questioned my ’common sense’. Some people in my family wonder if at the end of the day, I will be rendered dependent in some way. Even my Mexican cousins and friends brag about me as if my situation was one of a kind.
I am becoming somewhat of an urban legend in my little town in the Bajio of Mexico and it is simply just that---an urban legend. At least one strong, creative, woman with a disability came before.
Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in a suburb of Mexico City. According to several sources, Kahlo had two disabilities. At age six, her ability to walk became difficult when she contracted polio. Then in 1925, she was in a Mexico City trolley accident that broke her spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, right leg and foot. Although she would eventually regain her ability to walk, she would go through more than thirty five operations and spend months bedridden.
Kahlo took disability and made it into an art. Her art focused mainly on self portraits because, as she pithily commented “it is the subject I know best”. Exploring self-image is a tough task for anyone especially in an ableist society, yet Kahlo navigated it with honesty and color.
In almost all of her paintings, she wears bright and richly made skirts. It has been suggested that she wore these skirts to cover her scars and develop a sense of self. It also seems she become more comfortable with an identity as a woman with a disability as time progressed. Self Portrait with Loose Hair lets the world see her physical fragility while also managing to express her strength. Self Portrait with Dr. Farrill even illustrates Kahlo painting in a wheelchair.
Several of her paintings portrayed her disability in all its pain, challenge and glory. The painting Retablo depicts her trolley car accident and the fear that accompanied it in an almost religious quality. Her self portrait, Broken Column expresses her excruciating physical pain with an Ionic column through her back and nails driven through her head. Perhaps her most striking painting is Tree of Hope, Remain Strong. In this self portrait, Kahlo sketches two reflections of herself. The Frida on the left is a Frida recently rolled out of the operating room. She is bedridden, maimed and cut in half in more than a literal way. The Frida on the right however, is a confident woman triumphantly holding the surgical corset in her hand. Tree of Hope, Remain Strong hangs on my desk as it reminds me daily that I have several parts to my disabled self. Through painting her self image Kahlo gave, if not a name, a place in historical memory for disability.